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One of the things that seemed to have flourished in the pandemic is creativity. From Tik Tok videos to books to podcasts, the time freed up by isolation was poured into expressing how people were surviving in their newly defined cages—their homes.
Unpaused was filmed during the pandemic which, in itself, must have been quite a feat. It is a collection of snippets- of -life short stories, directed by five talented filmmakers, that cover the angst, loneliness, desperation and, at times, ludicrousness of the emotions stirred up during the lockdowns. It’s funny in parts, melancholy in others, and an engaging cinematic confection overall.
The first story, Glitch, was an attention grabber, for its humor as well as its creativity. It conjures up a dystopian, future in the year 2030, after the battle between man and microbe is increasingly looking like a win for for the microbe – now christened Covid-30. It stars Gulshan Devaiah, and Saiyami Kher who are mis-matched on a virtual date by a glitch in an online dating system. He is a Covid-30 hypochondriac who can barely leave his apartment, and she is a Covid Warrior– a scientist who exposes herself to the virus every day. Apart from good acting, it has some hilarious comic touches involving Mala, a bossy, smug, Indian version of Alexa. It’s futuristic creativity, and its funny take on dating in the age of online encounters and virtual rendezvous saves what would otherwise be a fairly cliched storyline.
Story two, The Apartment, involves a potential suicide which is interrupted by the doorbell, an occurrence. which appeared to have been lifted directly from the Swedish film A Man Called Ove. However, there the resemblance ends, because the potential suicide, Devika (played by Richa Chadha), is the cofounder of a media company whose partner and husband has just been revealed to be a sexual predator. The doorbell is rung by a young, good looking neighbor (played by Ishwak Singh), complaining of water leakage and offering to come in and help fix the problem. The Apartment tries to deal with the sensitive topics of suicide and personal responsibility; however, the storyline is shallow, and the characters appear artificial and manufactured. It’s hard to feel Devika’s desperation as she ties a scarf around her neck to hang from the fan when we can clearly see her perfect French manicure. The film’s saving grace is good direction by Nikhil Advani, who stitches suspense and backstory skillfully together and holds our attention.
Rat-a-Tat, directed by Tanishtha Chatterjee, is a delightful, poignant piece where some fine acting and an earthy, relatable script pull the viewer into the world of a nitpicking 65-year-old woman, Archana (played by Lilette Dubey), living alone in churlish isolation during the lockdown.
The story begins with Archana complaining bitterly on the phone to the police about a neighbor in her apartment complex who’s banging pans to honor frontline health workers, an activity which seems to be Archana’s regular routine. She’s soon jolted out of her irritable self-absorption by Priyanka (played by Rinku RajGuru), a neighbor who seeks refuge in the stairwell of the building because her apartment has been invaded by a rat. Dubey and RajGuru fit into their roles like second skins, and carry the story through to its somewhat cliched, but nevertheless enjoyable, ending.
Story four, Vishaanu, was insightful and empathetic and left you are wanting more. This short had the potential to be made into a feature film. A construction worker, Manish (played by Abhishek Bannerjee), his wife, Uma (played by Geetika Ohlyan) and their small son, are marooned during the lockdown with dwindling rations and no way to get back to their home village in Rajasthan. They camp out in the luxuriously furnished sample flat of the unfinished apartment complex where Manish is employed. Vishaanu was the only nod in this collection of stories to the terrific suffering a majority of poor Indians faced during Covid, and it was funny at times and heart-rending in the end. The difference between how the wealthy and the middle class in India endured Covid, compared to how the poor experienced it, couldn’t be starker.
The squatter family is tentative at first, intimidated by the sleekly furnished and well-equipped model home, surrounded by unthinkable luxury they could never afford. They don’t sleep on the satin sheeted beds, preferring to lay mats on the floor, instead. Slowly, we see them getting used to their new, temporary home, until their adventurousness lands them in big trouble.
It was good to see a film reflecting the plight of poor, working-class Indians who were caught blindsided by the catastrophe of Covid. Director Avinash Arun did a great job of presenting the destitute couple with compassion and humor, without making the tone too plaintive or desperate. I wanted more from the ending, though––after we’ve empathized deeply with the destitute family, its abruptness leaves one feeling vaguely unsatisfied.
Story five, Chand Mubarak, involves another lonely, old, upper middle-class woman, Uma (played by Ratna Pathak Shah), who is forced into an autorickshaw during curfew by an unsympathetic policeman. She’s the embodiment of crochety, privileged hypochondria and sprays the rickshaw liberally and with unconcealed disgust, despite the rickshaw driver (played by Shardul Bhardwaj) reassuring her that he sanitizes it every day. The film is another short that is carried on the shoulders of great acting by Shah and Bhardwaj and skilled direction by Nitya Mehra. I thought the story line was predictable but sweet, one of those feel-good Bollywood clichés about unlikely emotional connections that save people from drowning in their own puddles of loneliness.
Unpaused is a quirky, funny, ride into the world of the pandemic–- a cinematic record of all the irony, anguish, hope, and emotion that spun out of the ordeal.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents